by Mary V. Cass
If one has to arrive at an "ungodly hour" (i.e. 3 am) someplace in the world and not want to find a deserted airport and dark, lonely streets, it's Delhi. The airport was packed on my arrival, and on the streets, well, it was traffic as usual for Delhi, which means millions of 4 wheel and 3 wheel vehicles, and a considerable number of cows are all vying for moving space, all the time.Rather than frightening me it was a fascinating experience to see such a mass of humanity "on the move"- magnify 10 times what you experience at rush hour in Manhattan and you'll have some idea. I had come to Delhi as a participant in an international film festival. Arriving at that unseemly hour you can imagine my relief in seeing my host and other jury members from Europe waving and smiling at me from the crowd.
My first week in India was a rapid immersion not only into this city of great antiquity, but also into what is the world's largest film industry. We - 20 or so guests from abroad - were housed at Western Court, a grandiose, elongated structure of colonnades and arches, typical of the Western-Classical British architecture of early 20th Century India, designed for use by the Empire's government officials. Because of its close proximity to Delhi Parliament House, it is now used as a hostel for ex MP's who come to Delhi from the various States for government business. Located in the center of the city, it provided an excellent starting point for exploring, in our free moments, Old and New Delhi - its glorious monuments, indicators of its past grandeur and its soaring skyscrapers and bustling commercial complexes, evidence of its fast economic growth.
All of this served as a background to some special (memorable) encounters with film artists and media persons. It would be impossible to highlight here more than two such meetings: the first being with director Nebyendu Chatterjee, a filmmaker whose work spands 4 decades and typically reflects Kolkata art-house cinema. Since social justice and human rights issues mark the body of Chatterjee's works, his films are famed for being at times "uncomfortable" and provocative.
"For me," the director shared, "it is very important to highlight the perennial struggle of any civilization to the right of rice everyday for natural survival."
As the week unfolded I came to know this affable and dapper Indian gentleman more, and his profound commitment to promoting good cinema in his country. "I pray to be pardoned for my mistakes and omissions," Chatterjee humbly confessed, "and be only remembered for good and useful work, that might, in time, evoke social and cultural change where needed."
Suffering in his own personal life - loosing his mother at birth and two of his own children as adults- molded within this artist a soul of great sensitivity, especially toward the poor and marginalized. It also strengthened his own inner resolve to not compromise his work for commercial success or political correctness, but to remain tenaciously committed to creative authenticity. Although his films have garnered awards from all the Indian Film Festivals and shown in many festivals in Asia, Europe and North America, as Cannes, Berlin, Fribourg, Japan, Australia, Korea, Chicago, Toronto, to name a few, little has been written on his work. I felt privileged to have had the hours together that the festival offered to know this artist who has intentionally and successfully avoided publicity and what he calls "the rat race of film making." He is certainly not your conventional filmmaker: he has made only a small number of films in over a 3 decades, works on a shoe-string budget, and chooses new and forgotten faces for lead roles, exacting memorable performances out of them. Film critic, author and Chatterjee's close friend, Pradip Biswas, says that you can always identify his films "he puts his signature all over his work....they're easily identifiable for their artistic excellence." In writing about the Director's work, he was reminded of the words of filmmaker Lindsay Anderson: "Art that does not aim to change the world is not art at all."
One film that reveals the director's capacity to enter into another soul and make the suffering there his own and then, in turn, transfer it into celluloid is Mansur Mian-R Ghora (The Last Ride). This film is a quaint, low-budget film, produced in collaboration with the Indian National Film Development Corporation, and well received in the Indian Panorama. It recounts the story of an old man, Mansur Mian, member of a certain vanishing clan of Moslems in the city of Kolkata, who clings to his profession as a landau driver with the conviction that his vintage carriage, handed onto to him by his father, and his aged horse define his very being in life. Mansur is forced to confront the encroachment of his way of life by modernity when his son insists that the landau must be sold to provide the capital for his new taxi business.
The viewer journeys through the street of old Kolkata as a passenger on the faded velvet seats of the carriage, lulled by the rhythm of old horse's plodding feet and sees a disappearing culture through the despairing eyes of the old man. The window that this film offers onto the human and social values at risk in a lower middle class Muslim family demonstrates the rare insight and compassion of the director for a culture very different from his own upper class Hindu background.
"For me," Chatterjee commented, "Mansur Mian presents a theme that runs through many of my films, that is the struggle of an individual to survive and triumph over life's contradictions and adversities. The divide between Muslims and Hindus is bridged by the universality of this very human plight. The story is placed within the Muslim culture because it is the Muslims who drive landaus and reside in Rajabazar, part of old Calcutta. The theme, however, transcends ethnic or religious differences: the interior journey of a human soul, fearful to let go of his ancestral past, and in constant conflict with the materialistic world of the present."
The interpretation of the elderly Mansur and his tragic demure by actor Arun Mukherjee is brilliant. Chatterjee feels that acting is an essential part of the creative process of film art.
"Acting is an art to be inculcated; it cannot be merely learned. I choose artists for my films that are capable of bringing out the soul of the characters they are portraying. Their role should never look rehearsed or copied. Acting is like breathing: the actor "inhales" the soul of the character they are to portray to then " exhale" it as a personality, alive and communicating itself to others."
I asked the director what impression he hopes to leave with his public after seeing Mansur: "This work has been an artistic labor of love for me. In a way, Mansur represents myself, my ambitions, dreams, miseries - all being part of my journey as an artist. A film of inner journey is something very difficult for an artist to express. It is my hope that its purity of emotion and its faith in human values will be what remains with the viewer."
My second memorable visit was with Sandeep Marwah of Delhi, who plays a different but very important role in the world of media in India. One of the highlights of my trip was coming to know him and his wife Reena, who is the daughter of the well known Indian producer Shri Surinder Kapoor. Sandeep, who holds advance degrees in business and media, and a notable experience in the arts (theatre and television), was well equipped to initiate the building of the first "film city" in Northern India. Aware of the lack of training and research facilities for film artists and media professionals in the capital, Sandeep founded in 1993, within the Film City of Noiba ( a suburb of Delhi) his own institution, called the Asian Academy of Film and Television. AAFT today has the distinction of having trained over 4000 men and women from over 55 different countries and has emerged as one of the finest film schools for short-term courses. Its mission statement clearly reflects Sandeep's own commitment to film and the media arts as instruments of social change. It states: "The Asian Academy of Film and Television is committed to excellence in film and television education and training so that its alumni through their work, may make it a better world one day than it is today."
I spent 2 days at the Academy and saw evidence of Sandeep's deep belief that film can break down social, political and cultural barriers. It was his determination to put this belief into action that led him to contact the only existing film school in neighboring Pakistan. After a number of years of discussion between the governments of India and Pakistan, he was recently able to obtain an educational visa for 30 Pakistan students, the first allowed in over 60 years.
"This has lead," Sandeep shared, "to deeper understanding and collaboration between our two countries. By sharing the professional excellence that India has achieved in mass media education with the young people of Pakistan, we can begin to build more positive relationships, beginning with a new generation of communicators who want to work for a better world. Through the medium of film and media, our Indian and Pakistan students have learned to regard one another as "brothers and sisters," as protagonists for an industry that shares its resources and talents for a greater communion among all."
The Pakistan students were eager to share their experience. "While studying cinema and television together," a young Moslem from Karachi commented, "we have felt preconceptions and political and religious hostilities collapse....it was remarkable to discover we are all the same!"
"It is our hope that our program can be first among many aimed at bringing about greater dialogue and collaboration between our two countries," exclaimed a Hindu Pakistan student. "There has been no friction between us. We have all gained from the exchange of artistic talents, especially important for us from Pakistan where our resources in the media field are much less developed."
My last night in Delhi was spent at the beautiful villa of Sandeep and Reena Marwah - a wonderful conclusion to my stay in India. Their gracious hospitality, a trademark of the Indian people, imparted a feeling not only of acceptance in this culture so vastly different from my own, but also a spirit of universal brotherhood, embraced by Sandeep and lived out with contagious enthusiasm.
It was close after dawn, a few hours were left before my return flight to Rome. I couldn't leave Delhi without visiting with my friends the site that perhaps most embodies the soul of the Indian people: the tomb of Matatma Gandhi. Raijghat, a small area that eludes peace, is entered in silence. Gandhi's tomb of black marble, simply adorned with bright flowers and marked by an eternal flame, is walked around 3 times. Each turn seemed to bring us symbolically closer to the "center" of this man's inner being: love. As a spontaneous response to the sacredness of this moment, we began to recall out loud a few of Gandhi's timeless, life changing words. One saying, characteristically brief and simple, remained within as perhaps the most appropriate in summing up my brief visit: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."